Sweet “Blues” at Two River Theater

It’s hard to believe that “Your Blues Ain’t Sweet like Mine” is Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s first full length multi-character play. (The Obie-winning “Lackawanna Blues” was a solo show.) Line-by-line and scene-by-scene, the play’s smooth flow rivals that of many an experienced playwright’s best work. How fortunate for us (in Red Bank, NJ) that the Two River Theater two-time director (August Wilson’s “Jitney” and “Two Trains Running”) chose the same venue for the world premiere of his auspicious play writing debut.

When dealing with its main topic, resentment by African-Americans of White privilege, “Your Blues Ain’t Sweet like Mine” is as subtle as a thunderstorm. (“It’s the longest ass-whuppin’ in the history of civilization.”) Set in post- 9/11 2002, the play begins with a deceptively civil exchange between Zeke (Brandon J. Dirden), an African-American pick-up man for a used-clothing charity, and Judith (Merritt Janson), a white donor, in her upscale NYC apartment (Michael Carnahan’s fine design). At a subsequent dinner party, a racially-charged debate boils over into alienation and even a physical altercation.

Judith (Merritt Janson), Zeke (Brandon J. Dirden and a significant picture in Judith's living room

Judith (Merritt Janson) and Zeke (Brandon J. Dirden flanking a significant picture in Judith’s living room

That Judith had invited Zeke is explained by her writing project: a New York Times Magazine article about black under-achievers, as she had him correctly pegged. (“Why did you invite me into your home?” he had asked.) Their first scene, beautifully written and highlighted by a brilliant riff on white vs. black jazz artists, smolders with mutual attraction, though they touch only once – fleetingly, but tellingly.

When other dinner guests cancel, the event becomes a sort of awkward double date, pairing Judith with her fiancé Randall (Andrew Hovelson), white like Judith, and Zeke, by default, with Judith’s friend Janeece (Roslyn Ruff), black like Zeke. Similarities, however, end at the color line. Janeece is not enamored of Zeke’s hostility, and Randall’s liberalism has a false bottom. (Which reminds me to mention the women’s delicious hip-hop routine.) Randall, upon being told that the appellation African-American is preferable to black: “It’s too much to say.” Amusing enough in context, but racist? You decide.

Janeece (Roslyn Ruff) and Randall (Andrew Hovelson) complete a fiery foursome

Janeece (Roslyn Ruff) and Randall (Andrew Hovelson) complete a fiery foursome

The acting in that pivotal scene (and throughout), scrupulously directed by the author, is nigh perfect. From Zeke’s attention-grabbing entrance, through the ensuing confrontation, up to serial exits that leave Janeece pondering what had just happened, the four enact a forceful mini-epic. (Not without some laughs, if you can believe.) Dirden’s Zeke may be the centerpiece, but this fine-tuned foursome, working so well together, is uncommonly good.

Criticizing Zeke’s unrelenting vehemence risks being labeled racially insensitive, dismissive of the actor’s considerable ability, unmindful of the playwright’s intent or some combination thereof. That said, on a theatrical level, Zeke’s vitriol would (and I suspect will) benefit from some editing – not of its tone or sentiment, no; but of its repetition. More isn’t always more.

In a change of scene masterfully designed (by Carnahan) and executed (by Two River’s tech), the play ends in the unusual living quarters of Mr. Zebedee, an elderly black man with a harrowing past and a guilty secret, acted to perfection by Charles Weldon.

“Your Blues Ain’t Sweet like Mine” is an impressive achievement. Highly entertaining, it also questions the beliefs and sensibilities of whites and African-Americans alike, not preaching, pandering, or providing easy answers. Through Zebedee’s tour-de-force monologue (Weldon is mesmerizing), Santiago-Hudson does offer a hopeful conclusion. Assuming that is his intention, it is Mission Accomplished.

Through May 3 at Two River Theater, Bridge Avenue, Red Bank. Performances Wed at 1pm and 7pm; Thurs & Fri at 8pm; Sat at 3 and 8pm; Sun at 3pm. For tickets ($20-$65*): 732-345-1400 or at www.trtc.org *Well worth all of $65, but see website for several generous discount offers.

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